Archbishop Sambi will replace Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo Higuera, who has been the Holy See's representative in Washignton since 1998. Archbishop Montalvo is retiring, just short of his 76th birthday. In accepting the resignation which the Colombian prelate had submitted in January, Pope Benedict XVI thanked him for his long record of service in the Vatican diplomatic corps.
Archbishop Sambi, a 67-year-old Italian, is also a veteran Vatican diplomat. Since June 1998 he has held one of the most complex posts in pontifical foreign service, as nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and delegate to Palestine and Jerusalem. His tasks there included preparing for the visit to the Holy Land by Pope John Paul II in 2000, resolving a crisis created by the Palestinian occupation of the Nativity basilica in Jerusalem in 2002, supervising negotiations toward the conclusion of a juridical pact between Israel and the Holy See, and weathering an angry exchange between Rome and Jerusalem last July over terrorism. Throughout his assignment he was responsible for upholding the Vatican's stand that both Israel and Palestine should leave in peace and security in independent states, with a special international statute protecting Jerusalem.
The appointment of such a seasoned diplomat to the Washington assignment signals that the Vatican under Pope Benedict places a high importance on relations with the United States, and suggests that the diplomat post may require special delicacy as well.